Roadblocks on the PhD Path

Sign, Detour, Road Closed, Roadblock, Green Road

When we first embark on the journey towards obtaining a PhD we do so with the best intentions. We envisage a smooth path ahead of us and the key milestones we intend to reach along the way. What we don’t anticipate are the unexpected situations that throw us off course – things that obstruct our path or force us to make a detour. 

On average it takes approximately four years to complete a PhD and there is certainly a lot that can happen within that time. We are often different people by the time we come out on the other side. Our personal circumstances may change, our families may endure a crisis, or we could end up experiencing financial hardship. The roadblocks we encounter could also be directly related to our research. Perhaps the topic we had decided to write on is no longer feasible or we’ve run into problems with our supervisor. 

Although we can take steps to mitigate certain roadblocks, others are impossible to foresee.  The COVID-19 Pandemic is an excellent example of this. No one saw it coming, yet it has had a momentous impact on all higher education institutions. Regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home, field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, and universities have been forced to shift to a virtual learning environment overnight. No amount of planning or foresight could have prepared us for this crisis. Every student pursuing their PhD can feel the impact of this situation and has had to find ways to adapt. 

Whatever type of roadblock we encounter, from a personal crisis to a global pandemic, the consequences from a PhD perspective are almost always the same. Most roadblocks on the PhD path result in delays, which will likely mean requesting an extension or an interruption of studies. In other words, an already lengthy process gets drawn out further. 

The prospect of a protracted PhD, irrespective of the reasons that necessitate it, can be a difficult pill for a doctoral student to swallow. In fact, I’ve never come across a PhD student that is content with the amount of time their PhD journey has taken them. Most tend to despair at the length of time that it takes and judge themselves rather harshly for not being able to complete it more swiftly. As such, the notion of requesting additional time is not likely to be greeted with enthusiasm. 

Some of the concern with prolonging the PhD derives from a fear that our work may become outdated if we submit it later than planned. Nevertheless, the time-frame is less important than it may at first appear. For instance, if you select any piece of work, there will always be scope for updating, improving, or revising it in line with recent developments. Academic research is, by its very nature, dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. It is simply a snapshot at a specific moment in time and, therefore, the time-frame for completing your thesis is likely to be much more flexible than you have come to believe.   

A further reason why a delay may not seem appealing stems from the stigma of finishing behind your peers. If you end up taking more time and your peers finish before you, what will it look like? And, more crucially, what will it mean? Although you began your PhD journey with a peer group, it is important to remember that you are each on individual paths. Every project is unique, as is each student’s working patterns and personal circumstances. Any supposed competition between you and your peers is more imagined than real. The bottom line is that whether you submit before or after them makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line.    

Taking more time to finish your thesis as a result of a roadblock is by no means something to be embarrassed about. When you look back at your completed PhD, the fact that you persisted despite challenges is a testament to your dedication and perseverance. Staying the course in the face of roadblocks is something to be proud of and celebrated. 

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